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April 02, 2005

Actually, our Soldiers Do Enjoy Killing People

Matthew Yglesias and Shakepeare's Sister express disgust at a security-company memo from Iraq that says it's "fun" to shoot certain people. Josh Chafetz of Oxblog, alarmed that there are people who enjoy the violence-for-violence's-sake movie Sin City, compares it to the idea of people enjoying the Iraq war for its destructiveness. All of which suggests it's time to recall an impolite fact about our troops. Most of our Army soldiers who've volunteered for front-line infantry combat positions, and even more of our Marine riflemen, and practically all of our Special Operations troops, are -- there is no polite way to say this -- men who enjoy violence. They love being in danger and they love being dangerous. There's an important truth about our democracy here: under the proper circumstances, our front-line soldiers enjoy killing people.

It seems wrong to even suggest such a thing, doesn't it? But the taste for violence runs all through the culture of our close-quarters combat troops. I don't mean the ordinary Army soldier or Navy sailor. But the units whose volunteers actually expect to see a lot of up close and personal violence are filled with people who joined the military precisely to get that kind of legitimized danger and excitement. They don't seek killing as such, in the sense that they're just as happy if a bad guy survives and surrenders as if he dies when they shoot him. But the violence matters; they really do seek fighting.

Combat troops compare having to call off a mission to being a dog dragged back from leaping on another dog. All the combat-intensive units get incredibly macho about how tough and danger-loving they can be, with the Army Rangers envying the rougher and tougher Special Forces, and the Special Forces getting jealous of the even more action-intensive Delta Force, and so on. The original recruiters for Delta Force asked for men who wanted a job where they'd get "plenty of danger, and no recognition." Marines will call seeing combat "getting some". That's about it. Our combat-intensive units are filled with men who look forward to violence the way most men look forward to sex.

Of course, these men take enormous pride in the fact that the violence they do is legitimate violence. In fact, the more combat a serviceman trains for, the less likely he is to be violent stupidly or carelessly. He can't afford to: on the battlefield, he and his teammates have to be able to trust each other with their lives, and that means he has to be absolutely reliable about never shooting anyone who doesn't need shooting. Marines will tell you about training to fight the "three-block war", where in city block 1 they're shooting terrorists and on city block 3 they're feeding kids, and they take enormous pride in being able to switch at an instant from killing to babysitting. Green Berets say "Be polite, be professional, and always have a plan to kill everyone you meet." It sounds like a joke, and at one level it is, but in truth the "polite and professional" parts of that saying are as important as the readiness to kill. It's the control and professionalism that their training gives that lets these men be comfortable with their addiction to being dangerous.

But it's dishonest to pretend that somehow our front-line fighting men don't enjoy being in a business that lets them be violent. They do enjoy it.

People like to pretend that we're all saints, or should be, but our country works becauses it harnesses our animal selves instead of denying them. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," said our Founding Fathers, when they set up the Constitution so that a selfish Congress and a selfish President would keep watch on one another; and "private interest can be made to serve public interest" is the watchword laid down by Adam Smith that underpins our ridiculously selfish, ridiculously successful capitalist economy. Mind you, I'd prefer more altruism in Congress, and maybe a better safety net in the economy, and if we could have it a less bloody way of making dictators behave. But our system works not because we lie about our vices, but because we make them work like virtues.

And if we're serious about adopting a grand strategy of spreading democracy, it'd be a good idea to remember that democracy doesn't make countries' leaders wise or unselfish. (France, anybody?) What democracy means is that leaders' selfishness becomes a lot easier to work with, work around or live with. And that's enough.

Posted by danielstarr at April 2, 2005 11:20 PM

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